Very much a ’canal with a difference’, this major commercial waterway is not to be tackled lightly – at least not by private boaters. Opened in the late Victorian era, it made Manchester a seaport, much to the chagrin of Liverpool, and was incredibly successful until the 1960s, since when ship passages have dwindled, particularly in the upper reaches.
But it is still a fully functioning waterway and available for use by pleasure-boats, subject (quite rightly) to strict regulations. The most popular section is that linking the Shropshire Union Canal at Ellesmere Port with the Weaver near Runcorn, creating a ’Ring’ via the Anderton Lift, but the opening of the Liverpool Link may encourage more enterprising boaters to make a circular cruise by crossing the Mersey to enter the Ship Canal at Eastham Locks (best done in convoy or with a pilot).
Shipping is regularly seen in these lower reaches as the canal cuts alongside the Mersey Estuary past Ellesmere Port and through a fascinating landscape where grazing animals alternate with oil refineries. Weston Point Docks mark the junction with the Weaver, then you come to the former link with the Bridgewater Canal via Runcorn Locks, before passing under the Runcorn-Widnes bridge.
A series of hydraulically powered swing-bridges around Warrington and two more massive sets of locks are passed before the highlight of Barton Swing Aqueduct is reached. Mode Wheel Locks see little commercial use but bring the canal up to its final level, at the end of which are the impressively redeveloped docks, now called Salford Quays, with the Lowry Centre standing opposite Libeskind’s iconic Imperial War Museum building.
On the south bank, Manchester’s smaller docks offer a route through Pomona Lock to the Bridgewater Canal. Further upstream the canal seamlessly becomes the River Irwell and there is the exciting new opportunity to take your boat onto the restored Middlewood Locks section of the Manchester Bolton & Bury Canal.
But if it all sounds too daunting, or you do not have your own boat, there are excellent one-way cruises between Manchester and Liverpool offered throughout the year by Mersey Ferries. With a full commentary, a high viewpoint, and no hassle, this is the ideal way to see this still-impressive canal.
Notes: The MSC is controlled by the Manchester Ship Canal Company which should be contacted by those intent on navigation: Administration Block, Queen Elizabeth II Dock, Eastham, Cheshire CH62 0BB. (Tel: 0151 327 1461)